Anwar wants Malaysia to scrap race policies

Leader of the Pakatan Harapan coalition, Anwar Ibrahim at his house in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday. AFP

Pardoned Malaysian politician Anwar Ibrahim said on Thursday that decades-old affirmative action policies for the country's Malay majority must be discarded in favour of a new programme to help the poor regardless of race.

In an interview with The Associated Press, the prime minister-in-waiting also said he plans to run in a by-election this year to become a member of Parliament but that he isn't in a rush to take over the top job.

Anwar, 70, was convicted of sodomy in 2015 in a case he said was politically motivated. His sentence expires on June 8 but he was given a royal pardon on Wednesday and freed from custody after last week's stunning electoral victory by his alliance led by former foe Mahathir Mohamad.

Anwar said poor Malays will benefit more from merit-based policies that are transparent. He said the New Economic Policy, instituted in 1971 following bloody riots fueled by Malay discontent with the relative affluence of ethnic minority Chinese, has been abused to enrich the elites.

The programme, which gives preference to Malays in government contracts, business, jobs, education and housing, is credited with lifting millions of Malays out of poverty and creating an urban Malay middle class. It is also blamed for a racial divide between Malays, who account for two-thirds of Malaysia's 31 million people, and minority Chinese and Indians who have long complained about government discrimination.

The policy is a sensitive issue, with many Malays fearing they will lose their privileges under a new government. Many ethnic minorities have left Malaysia in search of better opportunities elsewhere.

"I have said that the NEP should be dismantled but the affirmative action must be more effective. I believe that poor underprivileged Malays will benefit more through a transparent, effective affirmative action policy rather than the New Economic Policy which has been hijacked to enrich the few cronies," said Anwar, a Malay. Anwar, who changed Malaysia's political landscape with his reform movement after he was sacked as deputy prime minister in 1998, said he had expected his alliance to win with a small margin but didn't expect the victory to be so complete.

He said defeated Prime Minister Najib Razak had been "self-indulgent" and underestimated public anger over the corruption scandal involving the 1MDB state fund that is being investigated abroad.

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Anwar wants Malaysia to scrap race policies

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